'Frontier of planetary science': NASA probe completes flyby of distant Ultima Thule

The Latest NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

The Latest NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

But even as the world awaits news from the far reaches of the solar system, New Horizons has once again made it to the history books. The spacecraft is believed to have come within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule.

It's been a busy new year period for NASA: its Osiris Rex spacecraft just entered orbit around the asteroid Bennu on Monday, too.

Stern said that Ultima Thule was unique because it was a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets.

"The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation", he said.

The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

But the encounter itself is risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned. "But I'd be kidding you if I didn't tell you that we're also on pins and needles to see how this turns out".

Radio signals from the spacecraft take six hours to reach earth.

In 2015, New Horizons sped past Pluto and sent back the most detailed photographs of the icy dwarf planet humanity has ever seen.

Now, over three years later, the spacecraft is making another historic flyby, this time of an object only discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope roughly a year before New Horizons sped past Pluto.

Scientists made a decision to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet. This first image of the peanut-shaped object will be followed by more scientific data and higher-resolution images over the next few hours and days.

"It's a better pixelated blob", said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 [the first US satellite] in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019", Zurbuchen said in an email that Stern read aloud Monday, reports Space.com.

Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.

Icy wilderness: The object lies in the Kuiper Belt, a huge area of mysterious chunks of ice and small planet-like objects that lies way beyond Neptune, and a billion miles further on than Pluto.

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver.

This is truly unlike any object we've explored, elsewhere in our solar system! "This flyby marks a first for all of us - APL, NASA, the nation and the world - and it is a great credit to the bold team of scientists and engineers who brought us to this point".

The twin planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when USA astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in December, 1968. The name Ultima Thule was chosen through a nickname campaign hosted by the New Horizons team.

"We set a record!"

And staff at the space agency have been celebrating after learning that the probe survived its encounter with the heavenly body - and will continue its mission.

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